The Green Mountain Timber Frames crew has just returned from week three in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. We are continuing to disassemble 4 old barns on a historic farm. While this past week was not as dramatic as the take-down of the corn crib that was featured in our last blog, we did make incredible progress as well as some discoveries. We even made some new friends in the area.
Removing the siding and roof from a 26×50 barn
One of the largest barns on the property was once a magnificent cow barn. Unfortunately, the posts have rotted to the point that we cannot restore this barn. It is rare for us to turn down a “save and restore” opportunity but in this case, the choice became very clear as we removed the siding and discovered vast rot in the posts.
Here is what we discovered underneath the vertical siding boards:
The walls had been packed tight with wood shavings and sawdust. The Daniels Farm, where this barn resides, had a sawmill on the premises at one point in its history. It must have seemed like a good idea to use the shavings for insulation. However, the end result was that the sawdust held moisture and rotted the frame.
Cows living on the inside of the barn created a lot of moisture through their living and breathing. In the cold weather, this warm humid air moved through air gaps in the shavings, hit the cold exterior boards of the barn, and condensed into water. The sawdust acted to hold this moisture.
A sawmill turned…apple-crusher
An interesting fact we learned about the Daniels’ sawmill was that when it came to be apple picking season each year, the workings of the sawmill were converted to power a giant apple crusher. Apparently, the Daniels and their neighbors made a great deal of apple cider when they weren’t busy making sawdust!
Surprise friends at the Daniels’ fawmill
Early in the week, we met some residents of this barn while removing the siding. And oh my goodness, it was cuteness overload!
We built a ramp down from the wall cavity where this family of 3 baby raccoons was living and then left the area alone for the rest of the day. I was so worried that we had scared the mother away. However, at the end of the day as we were getting into the truck to leave, Andy looked back at the barns. To our surprise and relief, we could see the profile of the mother raccoon perched in the peak of the barn. She had never left at all! Thankfully, we saw little footprints at the bottom of the ramp we had built when we returned in the morning. Mother had led them out to a new home.
While this barn is not restorable, it is certainly salvageable. We will use the roof boards, the siding, and many of the sound beams on future restoration projects. We will even use the nails and the metal roofing.
Speaking of roofing…it was quite a project to remove it all on a hot afternoon!
Next, we removed the roof boards. They have beautiful patina and will be a perfect match for replacing some of the boards on the other barns on the property that we will be restoring.
Next, we lowered the rafters to the deck.
We wrapped up our work on this barn by popping the pegs out of the sound braces and timbers. When we bring in a machine in a couple of weeks, we will be able to hoist the heavy beams safely down to the ground.
We came across an incredible piece of nail artwork while we were pulling the rafter tips apart. Cut nails were used, and some of them were made from fairly soft steel. Isaac discovered this incredible shape:
The nail had split apart lengthwise as it was hammered into the rafter. One piece of the nail went straight in, and the other curled up to form this beautiful profile!
This unique nail was one of many thousand nails that we have pulled over the past weeks. They range from large to small, and from hand forged to machine-made square nails. While pulling and de-nailing boards, we keep two five gallon buckets on hand: one for the nails that we can re-use, and one for the bad nails and other scraps of metal that we can recycle. We filled many buckets this past week!
We will soak the nails that are in good shape in vinegar, which will loosen the corrosion. A quick cleaning after that, and these old nails will be as good as new.
At GTMF, we are dedicated to preserving the historic architecture of New England. We restore old barns and build timber frame homes. Using nails like these and the wood beams salvaged from barns like the ones on the Daniels’ Farm, we are able to create historic homes built to last for centuries to come.
If you’re interested in learning more about our work, building a timber frame barn or owning your own barn home, contact us.
Here in New England, we have to think about snow in relation to old barns and barn homes. In particular, we have to think about the tremendous weight that a sticky snowfall can deposit onto the roof of an old barn.
Snow weights a lot…
The expected snow load in Vermont can be as high as 65 pounds per square foot. On a giant old barn with a huge roof, that kind of weight can add up. We also live on the edge of the slate valley, so many of our barns have slate roofs. A slate roof adds eight to ten pounds to each square foot. That is some serious weight that the roof has to support!
Last weekend, we were blessed with 24 inches of snow in some areas and now we are getting heavy rain on top of that. So how did the master timber framers of the 1700s and 1800s build their roof systems strong enough to stay true in winter storm events?
The answer in many cases is the engineering brilliance of a queen system.
In the barn shown above, which dates from the early 1800s and that we restored last summer, the queen system is the two full-length timbers and the posts and braces that support them. This method of construction cuts the effective length of the rafters in half, keeping them ridged under the forces of gravity.
Roof loading, caused by the weight of the roof system itself, the roofing material and the snow that collects on it, leads to two types of force. The first is a load directly down that can lead to sag or failure of the rafters themselves. A queen system supports them in the middle, thereby cutting down on the possibility of sag.
The second force is an outward thrust, meaning that the weight pushes outward towards the eves of the building. In an inadequate frame, this can break the joinery that holds the building together. In order to help with this outward thrust, queen posts are braced down to the horizontal girts. When the rafters are pinned to the queen beam, it reduces the amount of outward force that they can exert on the eve walls.
Another way that timber framers keep the queen system and rafters from spreading under weight is the use of horizontal ties between the queen posts. This technique makes a ridged queen bent, and when the rafters are pegged down into it, they are held back from pushing the eves of the barn.
The photo above shows a beautiful frame that we will be restoring soon. The pre-1800s gunstock frame has a queen system that looks like a stand-alone timber frame structure that provides rigidity to the roof system.
Another common style of queen system has the posts angled to meet the rafters at a 90-degree angle. When the posts are angled like this, large braces are needed to withstand the outward force.
The barn pictured above is an 1850s barn that we restored and re-erected on Cape Cod. And here is a photo of a very large barn that we did restoration work on in place this past summer.
Let it snow!
And, as always, contact us if you have any questions about queen systems in antique barns.
I recently stopped on my countryside meanderings at a favorite historical place: an old brick church located not far from our Vermont timber frame shop.
Matt was with me in the truck, and we both were struck by the calm and peace in the air when we stepped out. The church sits on a very quiet intersection of two farm-lined roads.
A Testimony to the Past
All was quiet at this 1826 church, but there were plenty of signs of past bustle, living and dying, and a way of life that revolved around the local community. The sky was amazing on this mid morning, and I imagined the lives that were centered here nearly two hundred years ago, many of whom no doubt now rest in the cemetery behind the church.
Looking carefully around the yard of the church, Matt noticed the faint sign of the horse and buggy drive that circled from the side and across the front of the church, now grown over in the neatly trimmed grass, but showing the shadows of days past. We commented that we could almost hear those horse hooves and the sound of parishioners greeting each other as they tied up their horses for the service.
The Timber Frame Carriage Barns
Beside the church, there are two amazing carriage sheds, and these were the original impetus for us to stop and visit this site. They are remarkable timber frame structures from when the church was built in 1826, and they have drawn my eye for years because of their simplicity, pragmatic purpose, and their beauty.
The carriage barns sit on the hillside between the church and the cemetery and were once used by churchgoers to “park” their horses and carriages while at services.
The historic barns‘ hand-hewn timbers are mixed species, but the majority are pine. Chestnut was used for some of the timbers closest to the ground, no doubt chosen for its rot resistance.
It was amazing to see how the timbers have survived for nearly 200 years, despite being open to the weather for so very many decades. Of course, the beams are weathered, but thanks to the density of old-growth timber, and the structural shoring up that has been done over two centuries by the community, they stand strong and true.
Matt and I were so inspired by the simple elegance of the construction, and our imaginations went right to wondering when the last carriage had been backed into one of these stalls.
Why I Love Timber Framing
One element in the design of these carriage sheds spoke straight to the source of my passion for timber framing. The craftspeople who put these buildings in place were seeking to work with nature – not to change it or overly manipulate the natural materials. As a visual example of what I mean, notice the flow of the carriage barn in the next photo as it relates to the land on which it sits.
The land went downhill, so the framers simply adjusted the post lengths in order to achieve a level eve and roof.
This concept speaks volumes to me about the character and world-view of the framers who put these old timber frames together. Our historic barns here in New England have survived centuries because of this approach taken by the craftspeople of yesteryear. Timber frame structures, sitting on stone foundations, can breathe and move with nature, and I am grateful that they have lasted to teach me life lessons beyond my craft.
~ Luke Larson
At Green Mountain, we have a passion for restoring historic timber frames and we’ve got some sweet, old barns for sale.
We would be happy to answer any questions you have. You can email or give us a call at 802.774.8972
About six years ago, we restored and erected this early New England timber frame.
The frame is a classic size at 30 by 40 feet. The interior of the barn is “clear span,” which means that the 30 foot timbers are so big that no center posts are necessary inside the barn, making it perfect for storing cars.
The timber frame barn sits nestled at the bottom of Mount Equinox here in Vermont, and wildlife is abundant here. Our client had been seeing American Kestrels in the area, and had the idea of building a nesting box for this smallest of North American raptors. A decline had been documented in the New England population of these birds.
Why not build a box right into the barn?
I have heard that early New England farmers would sometimes cut little bird doors into the gable ends of their cow barns for the swallows. Why? Because barn swallows are so incredibly beneficial for keeping the fly population down in a barn full of livestock. One of my favorite local timber frame barns came to mind, and we chose to copy the style of cut-out from this little gem: When we sided our barn using vintage boards, we cut six holes in the upper section. Copper flashing was used to keep water from going in. Five of the doors are faux, and the sixth has a hole that leads into a nesting box.
Well, five years past with no kestrels. But this spring a pair moved in! And here is the evidence:
We are so delighted that this idea came to fruition! It is remarkable to imagine the spring journey from far south, and perhaps even central America, that brought this pair of birds right into the gable of this beautiful vintage barn.
Now the only question is, who is going to climb up into that high gable when fall comes to clean out the nesting box?
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This homemade corn crib was used by a local farm family for generations. We purchased it and took it apart carefully because the sills were completely gone and it was beginning to settle back into the earth.
A future blog will get more into what makes this corn crib really special and how it will be used, but working on the roof this week got me thinking that I would like to lay out in a blog our process of restoration as it involves roof systems and roof boards.
Old Barn Restoration: The Process
Our first step when we get the frame labeled, disassembled and home is to pull the many antique nails. And I mean many! When a frame comes to us, it has usually gone through several generations of roofing material. Often our barns were first roofed with cedar shingles. This roof will last for 30 to 40 years before it has to be replaced.
From Slate to Cedar Roofs
A barn built in the 1700s had at least two or three iterations of cedar before the next big event in New England roofing: the development of the slate industry. In between these generations of roofing materials, the nails were tapped down into the boards rather than being removed. That leaves it to us to get all that metal out. It is fascinating to see the generations of nails in a single board- from hand forged, to cut, to modern wire nails. We tap them from the inside first, careful not to mark the show surface with our hammerheads. Then we flip the board over and pull them out. We save the handmade nails, and throw the rest into our metal recycling bin.
Washing the Timber Frame and Boards
Next, we wash the frame and the boards. It is amazing to watch two hundred years worth of grime fall away from the boards! It feels like painting in reverse – allowing the incredible patina to come through that only a century or two of light and air can create. It is a process that requires great care; if we wash with too little pressure, the patina does not come out, but if we use too much pressure or pause in mid-stroke, the water will raise the grain of the wood and cause an unsightly mark.
We can not put away the boards when they are wet because of the risk of mold. So we dry them in the sun like so much laundry on washing day. The end result of all this handling is worth it when we see the sun shining off these vintage boards. They will make a stunning ceiling when the barn is re-erected.
Reassembling the Rafter System
Next, we are ready to assemble the rafter system. We make any necessary repairs and replacements to the rafter system, and then we assemble one half of the roof at a time. In the next photo, you can see the five-sided ridge beam from a restoration we completed last summer. That particular roof had four braces that went from rafters to ridge beam.
We check the peg holes to make sure that the new pegs will hold strong and true. If necessary, we re-drill a peg hole where a “new” rafter was installed or where we made a repair to a rafter tenon.
Laying out the Timber Roof Boards
Now we lay out the roof boards. All the roof boards are labeled as we take the barn down, but we very often have to straighten some edges and switch out fatigued boards for others with similar color. Remember all those generations of roofing material? Very often there was a drip somewhere at the end of the lifespan of each layer of cedar, and thus very often we have to replace some of the boards.
There are blond “shadows” on the underside of the boards where contact with a rafter shielded them from light and air. We do our best to line these shadows back up on top of rafters. Complicating this process is the fact that half-round or hewn rafters are rarely straight, so the spacing of the shadows varies depending on the spot in the roof. Doing this work while flat on the ground at the shop allows us to be as careful as possible with color matching, board spacing, and shadow hiding.
Checking the Roof Board Labels
As our final step in this part of the restoration process, we carefully go through the boards and check the labels. We have a system of marking the outside of the boards so that we can efficiently apply them when the rafter system is standing.
The end result is a timeless visual ceiling. Or, perhaps we should rather say time-full. Here is what it looks like on one of our completed frames that now stands as a barn home:
Back to Roof Restoration!
Let’s get back to that roof restoration that we completed yesterday. Here are a few more photos from this week’s restoration of our little corn crib roof. With a footprint of 14×18, this barn is a miniature of some of the larger barns we work on, but it is not small or modest in craftsmanship.
The half-round rafters are beautifully tenoned into the five-sided ridge beam, and the rafter tails have an elegant “swoop” at the eve. When we put this frame back up on its new foundation, the roof system will be ready to support many future iterations of roofing materials.
Stay tuned to learn more about this restoration, and about the exciting future home for this frame.
Have questions about restored barns? Dream of living in a timber frame home?
Below – enjoy more pictures from the roofing project!
We have a new home!
So what’s the new property?
- First, I am deeply committed to staying in the beautiful little mountain town of Middletown Springs. With a tight-knit community, small school and beautiful setting, this town where Green Mountain Timber Frames began has been supportive and it is home for the majority of our team.
- Second, I wanted a space with plenty of open space for restoration work, careful storage of timbers, and that has the room to stand up some of our vintage frames. I also needed it to be on a paved road so that we can get large trucks and trailers in and out all year- even in Vermont’s famous mud season! In a town with only a few miles of paved road, this really narrowed down the options.
- Third, I wanted a space that would be beautiful and conducive to creative work.
There are about 1400 maple sugar taps on the property, so stay tuned and watch for the Green Mountain Timber Frame label next spring on a bottle of something very sweet!
Mostly – I want to say thanks!
I want to give a huge thank you to everyone – near and far – who has supported this endeavor of the restoration of our New England historical barns, and especially to those hear in Middletown Springs who have been so supportive of our work to purchase this new space.
~Luke Larson, Owner of Green Mountain Timber Frames
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